The Right to Learn In Your Mother Tongue
By Dr Tariq Rahman
If one goes to an elitist English-medium school and meets the principal, or whoever condescends to grant an audience, one finds out that one's mother tongue - assuming one is a Pakistani - is held in supreme contempt. I once asked a certain principal whether Punjabi children had the right to be educated in Punjabi even in the juniormost classes and she gave me the kind of look one reserves for the mentally handicapped.
Yet the UNESCO position paper, Education in a Multilingual World (2003) says clearly:
1. Instruction in the mother tongue is essential for initial instruction and literacy and should be extended to as late a stage in education as possible.
2. Communication, expression and the capacity to listen and dialogue should be encouraged: first of all in the mother tongue, then, if the mother tongue is official or the national language in the country, in one or more foreign languages.
3. Measures should be taken to eliminate discrimination in education at all levels on the basis of gender, race, language, religion, national origin, age or disability or any other form of discrimination.
As we can all see, our English-medium schools violate all these principles and with the utmost arrogance. They force small children - children as young as three or four whose tongues can hardly lisp words of their own language - to speak English. They force their teachers, some of whom very wisely keep using Urdu, to put up the pretence of talking in the totally incomprehensible English to their tender pupils.
And, of course, these schools discriminate against children on the basis of wealth, urban culture and English. They charge unaffordable tuition fees discriminating against the less affluent; those who run them have the audacity to interview parents and show contempt for those who produce food and clothes (peasants and the workers); and they discriminate against parents who do not know English. Even worse, they send material written in English to children's homes and create the kind of snobbish atmosphere where those who cannot speak English feel ignored, held in contempt or marginalized.
Urdu-medium schools - the schools that most children attend - are less snobbish than their English-medium counterparts. However, they too look down upon Punjabi and are completely ignorant of other minor or vernacular languages. Indeed, it comes as a surprise to most people that Pakistan has sixty-nine languages and not just the six or seven we keep hearing about. These small language communities are not always so small that it should be impossible to teach them in their mother tongues. Some have hundreds of thousands of speakers and are spoken in fairly large contiguous areas. For instance, Balti, spoken in Baltistan has over 300,00 speakers; Burushaski, spoken in Hunza, Nagar and Yasin Valleys has over 70,000 speakers; Kalami, spoken in Kalam and Dir (Kohistan) has over 70,000 speakers; Khowar, spoken in Chitral, has over 250,000 speakers and Gujrati, spoken in the old city of Karachi, has several thousand speakers. The children of these communities are, however, educated in Urdu or maybe English and not in their own mother tongue.
I once happened to go to Kalam in Swat to a school where very young children were being instructed in Pushto. This was the teacher's mother tongue and also of a few students. Most children, however, were speakers of Kalami. When asked questions the children remained quiet. The headmaster explained to me that Kalami children were slow learners and very shy. However, the more likely explanation was that they were struggling with an alien language in an alien atmosphere - the school. And this is a story repeated all over Pakistan - indeed, all over the world.
This is cruel towards the children because by denying their mother tongue we are denying them the easiest means for understanding the world. What they do is to memorize sounds and it is only later that they start internalizing concepts. Even worse, we are denying them their identity. What we are conveying to them is that your language, your identity as a people, is worthless. If you want to become worthy of respect you must become like some dominant, alien, community. This is an insult but children internalize it and show contempt for their own people, their language, their culture, their values, their history all their lives.
Moreover, this process of weaning children away from their languages kills these languages over time. As more and more people shift to the languages of power (English and Urdu, in that order in Pakistan) the indigenous languages become obsolescent. Finally, they are no longer passed on to the children. Then, with the death of the last speaker, the language dies. This is an infinitely sad thing to happen. After all, a community is shaped by its language. The community dies, its worldview dies, its music and folk tales and jokes and riddles - all die. And along with it the traditional knowledge the community might have possessed - such as on herbs, food, animals, healing methods, education - also disappears.
This is a great loss but communities allow it to happen because the market conditions imposed by society are such that they cannot afford to maintain their language. Moreover, the community itself feels ashamed of its languages since society considers them inferior jargon. The native speakers, thus, unwittingly become accomplices in the murder of their own mother tongue. That is why some people call this phenomenon 'language suicide' rather than 'language murder' which it really is. But it is 'murder' if you consider the market pressures, the policies which create that pressure, and the attitude we have towards the languages of our ordinary people.
These being the conditions, can something be done to promote the smaller, or the marginalized, languages of Pakistan? Certainly a lot. First, the government must make instruction in the mother tongue compulsory in the first three years of school. This will mean that Punjabi will be the medium of instruction in most Pakistani schools. However, children whose parents or grandparents came from the Urdu-speaking parts of India should have the right to be educated in their mother tongue. Punjabi children, whose families no longer speak Punjabi, must, however, be educated in Punjabi. Books, films, games and other material will have to be made in not only Pushto, Balochi, Brahvi, Seraiki and Hindko but also in Khowar, Shina, Burushaski, Balti, Gujrati and so on. Material giving information on AIDS, family planning, women's rights, children's rights can also be provided in these languages.
Most of this material will, however, be audio or audio-visual. This is achievable because Papua New Guinea, which has 840 languages for a population of only five million, has published material in hundreds of languages and teaches children in more than 220 languages. The literacy rate is 81 per cent for males and 63 percent for females. This is more than we have achieved and we too can make it happen. But for this, we shall have to teach our school administrators and teachers - especially those from elitist English medium schools - that they have no right to look down upon our languages or stop children from using them.